Deadly Premonition review
In among the deluge of blockbuster games vying for your attention this Christmas lies a little known gem without the multi-million dollar advertising campaign or the established franchise brand to catch your attention. Which leaves only games™ to explain why Deadly Premonition deserves to sit at the top of your wishlist.
When Deadly Premonition was first announced under the name Rainy Woods in 2007, it caught people’s attention because of its many obvious similarities to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Then it disappeared, later emerging as Red Seeds Profile and switching names again to Deadly Premonition for its budget US release. A lot has changed since Rainy Woods began development, so much so that SWERY, the creative mind behind the game, says he regards them as two entirely separate projects. The Twin Peaks references were toned down slightly, while the script was reworked and dialogue re-recorded, but all this was for the better, since Deadly Premonition now stands as a unique and perhaps rather special game. One which some might call a masterpiece.
If it is though, then it’s a flawed masterpiece, and for every fan there will be an equal number who absolutely despise it. Having already been out for over six months in the US, Deadly Premonition has cemented itself as this generation’s most divisive game – but why such divergent opinions?
For those unable to appreciate its budget pricing and all that it entails, the tank-based walking controls will seem clunky, the vehicles sluggish and unrealistic, the QTEs intrusive, and the combat irredeemable. Plus the visuals are early Dreamcast era. In reality that’s erroneous, since most Dreamcast games had much higher production values. The problem is: Deadly Premonition lacks any kind of polish to complement its grand ambitions.
Allow its warped vision inside your mind though, and it proves to be one of the most compelling and charming games in a long time. Its extremely deranged themes and low production values put it alongside the works of Kenji Eno and Suda 51, and with a little imagination it could be seen as the cheaply-made offspring of D2 and Killer7, dressed in the unborn flesh of Shenmue 3.
As FBI agent York, sent to Greenvale to investigate a murder, you’ll need to shave, launder dirty clothes, eat, drink, sleep and buy petrol as you drive around and complete the investigation, even receiving an itemised paycheque from the bureau every few days. And with a slow day/night cycle, the only way to speed up time is smoking cigarettes (which, of course, need to be bought from the shops).
So much criticism has been levelled against the ropey visuals that most critics fail to notice the epic, sandbox scale of Greenvale. Whereas sprawling cities by other developers have a toy-box-like appearance, Greenvale feels dauntingly and realistically expansive for a small town. Some will complain about being unable to zoom out on the map, but this only enhances the feeling of size. Praise must also be placed on the fact that absolutely everything of importance is shown on the map, from every quirky NPC through to fetch-quest items such as bones, flowers and trading cards.
Unfortunately, the best aspect is one we can’t easily discuss; to explain why its narrative is so magnificent would spoil it. Many say the story falls into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category, but this is unfair, since when seen as a whole the story and characters are interlinked ingeniously, and are genuinely fantastic. Trust us when we say the ending has one of the best pay-offs in history, and its subtle underlying themes of psychological repression, schizophrenia and sexual deviance should generate as much internet discussion as Braid’s atomic-bomb subtext. You’ll laugh when York chats with himself about old films; be saddened when seeing the signs of abuse on one character; touched by the sentimentality of an ageing father; and utterly headspun when evil and virtue trade places. With the investigation concluded there’s a tragic melancholy in leaving Greenvale, having become so attached to its many diverse characters.
With praise falling on Deadly Premonition’s narrative and criticism on its gameplay, some might ask if there’s even a need to play it when detailed videos are online. Doing so would miss the point though: at its best, Deadly Premonition is an experience only appreciated through the uniquely interactive medium of games. While books, theatre and film have countless more examples with better told narratives, none of them allow you to spy through windows into the homes of favourite characters, or help them on rainy days, to be rewarded with a meal and discussion of their past. The fifty optional side-quests provide wonderful insight into each bizarre person’s life, from the hilarious wandering Pot Lady to the Vietnam veteran. By forcing you to adhere to the time schedules of its inhabitants, not to mention the need for basic amenities, the game offers a seldom-found level of intimacy. For all the bluster developers make about challenging film, Deadly Premonition achieves more than a linear movie is capable of, and is let down only by its non-existent budget.
While a lot of its shortcomings can be forgiven in light of its positives, the combat, which feels tacked on and unnecessary, is inevitably frustrating and has to be mentioned. At best it’s functional, and initially shooting zombies in the face is mindless fun. But enemies become stronger, forcing you to fire your machine gun for an inordinately long time while they dance around in a seizure. Side-quests grant powerful weapons, preventing frustrating difficulty spikes, but combat areas are still tedious chores – so play on Easy (this only affects Achievements, not the ending).
When comparing it to similar games such as Alan Wake, consider that while you will unquestionably be embarrassed by the low budget visuals and wish the combat mechanics were tighter, you’ll also experience some incredible moments that can’t be found in any other videogame.